By: Riitta H Rutanen Whaley, Mindfulness Instructor, Duke Integrative Medicine
Author: Pausing Mindfully
The deepest lessons in life, as well as the greatest opportunities for change, often arrive during difficult circumstances. Up until now, we as a species have for the most part managed to avoid sensing the deep undercurrent of worry, fear, fragility, and the need for self-love and self-care. It has become much harder to avoid these basic human emotions and needs under the current circumstances. Our day’s usual patterns have been stripped bare or changed and it is virtually impossible not to contemplate the impermanence and apparent randomness in the universe.
For thousands of years, mindfulness has been used to cultivate an understanding and acceptance of impermanence, while at the same time fostering equanimity, kindness, as well as the thoughts and actions that arise from the coupling of inner wisdom with our cognitive abilities.
While the presence of health care workers, the police, grocery store employees, and other essential workers provide us with a slice of normalcy, many of us now have an opportunity to enhance our innate qualities of mindfulness. Here are a couple of my favorite methods:
Our brains are hard-wired for vigilance, something that allowed our ancestors to survive in harsh environments, where they had to constantly be on guard to avoid danger. This inherited facility can overwhelm us at times of crises – like the one we are now facing. We also know that what we focus on and how we do it shapes our emotions, thoughts, and tendencies. “Where is comfort” invites us to pause, take in the familiar scene out the window, dwell on the smell, taste, and flavor of coffee or tea, or to note the fact that right now we are protected from the elements inside our homes. We can do this mindfully, with kind, accepting curiosity, letting comfort spread around, and soften tension in the body-mind. Over time we strengthen the brain circuits that guide our attention toward positive experiences, reducing the tendency for needless vigilance.
With social distancing the world has grown quieter. There are fewer cars, trains, buses, and people moving around, creating less background noise. You may hear the birds chirping, now that their sounds are not muffled by the usual traffic noise in the city. Or you may find that the birds and crickets sound louder in your neighborhood. Quieter environments facilitate spacious awareness. We may find it easier to allow sounds to come to us, instead of searching or intentionally focusing on one. We can play around and see if we can hear the differences between the left and right foot touching the ground. Or we can cultivate greater presence by being aware of what arises (sensations, thoughts, emotions) in the body and mind when exposed to natural sounds (forest, garden, sea), what unfolds when surrounded by man-made sounds. While doing this we can explore our interpretation of some sounds as annoying or bad, suspend judgment, and investigate “just hearing” – connecting to the wave-like quality of sounds simply rising and falling.
Wishing everyone stays safe and well,
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